Review: BEING HENRY DAVID by Cal Armistead

Review: BEING HENRY DAVID by Cal Armistead
Being Henry David

Written by: Cal Armistead
Published by: Albert Whitman Teen
Release date: March 1st 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
Pages: 320
Format: Hardcover
Buy: B&N, Amazon
Add on: Goodreads

Seventeen-year-old "Hank" has found himself at Penn Station in New York City with no memory of anything - who he is, where he came from, why he's running away. His only possession is a worn copy of Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. And so he becomes Henry David - or "Hank" - and takes first to the streets, and then to the only destination he can think of - Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Cal Armistead's remarkable debut novel is about a teen in search of himself. Hank begins to piece together recollections from his past. The only way Hank can discover his present is to face up to the realities of his grievous memories. He must come to terms with the tragedy of his past, to stop running, and to find his way home.


Being Henry David was sort of an impulse-read for me. I went to the library to pick up a couple holds and decided to “quickly” browse the YA section, and for some reason my eyes immediately fell on this book. I’d known about it and I wanted to read it eventually (I knew it had something to do with memory loss, which interests me when used in fiction), and suddenly I had the urge to read it immediately. So I grabbed it.

I had other books I probably should’ve been reading at the time, but I decided this one was more important. And it was. Guys, I loved this book. It grabbed from the beginning, and didn’t let go until the last page.

Being Henry David starts off really abruptly, with Hank waking up in Penn Station with no memory of who he is or how he got there. I really liked this “thrown into the deep end” approach – it’s abrupt, but it also feels appropriate, because we’re being tossed right into the same situation as the main character, waking up in a noisy and confusing environment, not knowing what’s going on. So anyway, he wakes up and the only thing near him is a copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau; and when he’s asked who he is, he says the first thing that comes to mind – Henry David, eventually shortening it to Hank. The plot moves quickly, with Hank making a couple friends (and enemies) in New York before deciding that his only option is to follow his “clue” to Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, which is where the majority of Being Henry David takes place.

This book is mostly a journey of Hank’s self-discovery, but one thing I wasn’t expecting was for it to be exciting. I mean, it’s not action-packed, but there were tons of elements of suspense and some pretty dire situations that Hank got himself into, especially in New York, which added to the story.

But really, Being Henry David holds its own because of Hank himself, and his journey to (literally and figuratively) find himself. I found him to be an incredibly believable and sympathetic main character, and seriously well-developed despite his lack of memories. I’m a sucker for male-POV books in general, but this one was just… This is going to sound weird, but I loved being inside Hank’s head as he tried to work out who he was – not just the details of his name/history/etc, but also what kind of person he was, and who he wanted to be.

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… to put to rout all that was not life… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Hank was terrified of his past because he got the feeling something bad had happened, and he both did and didn’t want to remember what it was. He knew his mind was trying to protect himself from the memories, but he still tries to seek out the truth, and that starts with his journey to Concord.

Once in Concord, Hank meets a lot of different people, and ends up lying to basically everyone about what he’s doing there. One person who he (eventually) confides in is librarian/Thoreau expert, Thomas. Thomas is a huge help to Hank as he searches for information on who he is, and copes with his slowly resurfacing memories. Thomas is also probably my second-favorite character in the book, after Hank. He’s a Harley-riding, guitar-playing librarian. Pretty awesome.

There’s also a bit of a love story – what YA story is complete without some romance? But romance isn’t really the word – it’s definitely a pretty normal teenage crush for most of its duration. Though I did find it a little instantaneous (the girl is the first one Hank sees when he gets to Concord), I think it was true to Hank’s character to want to cling to someone who thought he was normal, accepted him for who he was, and didn’t know about his amnesia. Hank ends up liking Concord, and as his memories start to come back, he realizes that they might not be things that he wants to remember, so clinging to his make-believe world is understandable, I think.

ANYWAY, I’m rambling. I do that when I don’t really know what else to say. And I’m at a loss for words because I really, really, really liked this book. A lot. The pacing was perfect for me – it started off with a bang, but even when things quieted down, Hank carried the story easily. I was glued to the pages from start to finish, needing to find out who Hank was, but also dreading the revelation of his past just as much as he did.

I don’t want to give anything away about what happens to him in the end, but I found the conclusion to be extremely satisfying. Everything isn’t perfect, but it’s incredibly hopeful.

Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

In conclusion…

I found Being Henry David to be thoughtful and poignant and actually really moving. (There may have been some tears at the end, I’m just saying.) I’m probably going to need to get my own copy soon, since I only checked this out from the library. I have a feeling I’ll want to re-read it eventually. If you like contemporaries, coming-of-age stories, “amnesia fiction”, and/or books told from a male-POV, I’d highly recommend checking this one out.

5 thoughts on “Review: BEING HENRY DAVID by Cal Armistead

  1. I also love stories that involve memory loss or false memories as a narrative tool. When it’s done properly it can be a wonderful reading experience. If you haven’t read Forgotten by Cat Patrick then I really recommend that you give it a try (my review).

    A book like Being Henry David really does rely on the main character being someone the reader cares about and forms an attachment to and it sounds like the author’s gotten this spot on. I’m glad you enjoyed this one and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for a copy.

    Great review Nikki.

  2. I LOVE your reviews, Nikki! They are so thoughtful and moving :) I’ve heard of Being Henry David once or twice but I never thought much of it since it didn’t sound like a ME book but your review has me convinced! Hank’s story and self-discovery intrigued me and I won’t mind a male-POV for a change!

    Alicia @ Summer Next Top Story

  3. Oh, I think I’ve heard about this book before, but it went in one ear and out the other. But this review?! Makes me totally think I should pick it up. I’m not one for contemporaries, but the amnesia aspect of it and the male PoV intrigues me. And hey, it made you tear up? Crazy as it is, but that’s a selling point for me too! I’ll have to add this on my wishlist!

  4. I am so glad to see this book review cross my Twitter Feed. I just finished an ARC copy of this book Saturday! I loved Hank’s journey of self-discovery and all the secondary characters (Nessie is so cute I want to hug her myself!). The end left me wanting SO MUCH MORE! When I write my review next week, I will include a link to this review as well :)

  5. I always like it when books deal with amnesia. I like to reveal their true identity piece by piece, so this one sounds great :) Nice review, thanks for sharing!

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